Last month Lewis McNeill celebrated ten years of working at The Orchard Project. Over this time, Lewis has built up a considerable reputation among the London community gardening sector and is well-respected for his impressive knowledge of fruit tree care and permaculture approaches. It’s amazing that Lewis’ passion for community orchards remains as strong as ever, and we are fortunate that he continues to dedicate himself to our cause. What a TOP asset!
Jo Hooper caught up with Lewis for a chat about his 10 year journey with us:
So, how did you end up working at TOP?
At the end of 2009 I was lucky enough to secure a new job as the London & SE Project Manager of an exciting new community orchard project for schools, headed by our friends Learning Through Landscapes.
In that first year, I spent a lot of time learning the lay of the land in London’s emergent and thriving local food growing scene, including the recently formed London Orchard Project. I contacted Carina, who’d started LOP, to see if I could borrow her apple press to cart around to my 15 participating secondary schools.
That’s how I met Carina. She informed me that she had new funding on the way which would allow her to employ two new Project Managers… and she strongly encouraged me to apply! I did, and I got the job, which meant as of May 2010, I was working full-time for LTL and LOP, focussing on urban, community orchards.
It’s been an incredible journey since then. I feel incredibly blessed to have been working on orchards as my main job.
What have been the biggest changes in how TOP works?
“Now, when we plant, we set out to create an ecosystem, not just an orchard… And of course, people are also a vital part of the community orchard ecosystem.”
We’ve come a long way in how we operate and it’s always evolving. When I joined, the orchard ‘spec’ was simply a collection of fruit trees. However, through the influence of permaculture and by observing the myriad challenges of the urban environment, we now have a much more holistic approach. We now set out to create not just an orchard, but an ecosystem; – including fungi & the soil food web, beneficial predators – from hoverflies to blue tits, and a whole range of plant species that support each other and perform various functions.
I mean, we’ve gone deep into soil! Soil is fundamental to all food growing, but when you’re working in the city it can be one of the biggest challenges. Of course, people are also a vital part of the community orchard ecosystem. Our model has evolved to focus on and support the human community as much as the other components.
Without people to care for the system, particularly during the initial years of establishment, you end up with a sorry bunch of drought-stressed and damaged plants. We have an incredibly high rate of tree survival (ie. successful establishment and ongoing health) as a result, – and that’s no mean feat in the urban environment. That’s not to say the community support model wasn’t strong from the offset; the Orchard Leader Training, six month follow-up visit and ongoing communication through our London Orchard Network all went a long way to ensuring that the orchards were cared for and enjoyed in the long term.
However, that was only a starting point, and now our model for working with communities is much more comprehensive and honed. We now also offer Level 3 accredited training to the wider public though our Certificate in Community Orcharding (CiCO). And of course, we’re no longer The London Orchard Project! We’ve been able to set up in a handful of cities across England and Scotland and become the only national charity dedicated to orchards. This has allowed us to get many more people engaged with community orchards and welcome some incredible new colleagues to the team!
Then there is the cider arm of our operation. Back in 2010 & 2011 we made our first micro batches of cider, and now we’re really going for it! – Using 40 tons of fruit from gardens and community orchards to make our ‘Local Fox’ cider. The profit made goes back into us planting more community orchards… – cheers to that!
“My work gives me hope, as do all the people I work with along the way. This new wave of interest and respect for the natural world, more people wanting to take action, the rise of the rewilding movement…these all give me hope.”
What have been your most memorable moments?
Wow, there have been so many! I’ve worked with such amazing colleagues and community groups over the years and learned so much from all of them, and been trained by the most experienced orchardists and fruit tree experts across the land!
The urban Wassails at Alara Wholefoods come to mind, this was a legendary annual event that married old rural custom with modern culture (think rappers freestyling about rootstock to a backdrop of giant pallet fires!). One of the more surreal moments was presenting to a delegation of 20 scientists from the Gansu Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China about holistic approaches to orcharding, requiring a live translator!
I remember a dicey moment where I was attending a cider event at the Houses of Parliament. I had come straight from a pruning workshop and had a lot of vicious looking pruning saws in my bag (in hindsight that was poor planning). You should’ve seen the look on the security guard’s face when that cache passed through the scanner!
Another memorable moment, but not a nice one, was finding myself in a police cordon while delivering a pest & disease training due to a stabbing right next to us. That was full on… but this is the world urban orcharding after all.
What changes have you seen in the last 10 years in attitudes towards food growing & urban orchards?
More people want to do it. It was already becoming more popular before Covid, but now it’s really taking off, particularly after the spectacle of supermarket shelves laid bare of fresh produce. The pandemic has demonstrated just how precarious our current food system is and people have taken note. Indeed, as a project whose birth was inspired by the transition town movement, growing more food in cities to help buffer the impacts of such shocks was part of the original idea.
Another big change in the last few years is people waking up climate change. People want to be able to take practical, hands-on action in their communities and so tree planting has become even more popular. So, now we have the perfect opportunity to marry the two; why not plant food-producing trees? Why not plant diverse forest gardens that can produce food, help lessen some of the physical stresses of climate change in the city, and improve mental wellbeing? Perennial food systems are becoming more popular; agroforestry and forest gardening are becoming more mainstream.
Of course, wellbeing is another way that Covid has encouraged people to engage with plants – gardening has been a lifeline for so many this last year. And spending time in local green spaces has become a new hobby for many, so we have more people becoming interested in nature. The time is ripe for a community orchard/food forest revolution!
What do you love about working for TOP?
For me, urban community orchards tie together so many of my interests and passions in a way few other ideas could: sustainable food growing, climate change resilience in cities & preparing for the changes that are already occurring swiftly, increasing biodiversity & people’s interaction with the living world, community empowerment & wellbeing, and simply trying to create the world we’d like to see – fruit tree by fruit tree. Of course, there’s also the cider!
This role has been so diverse, so I never get bored. I could be in a school linking the school orchard to the maths curriculum, training council staff about fruit tree care, leading a grafting or pruning workshop, training students about soil on our accredited course, or out harvesting or juicing apples on any given day! I feel so lucky to work for an organisation with such a caring and open culture, more than ever over this last year, where policies like our monthly staff wellbeing budget have been invaluable for helping us through it. I get to work with a wonderful bunch of committed, caring, passionate people who put so much into what they do, – they all inspire me!
What gives you hope for the future, or the next ten years?
Well, as someone who’s been pretty deeply into learning about climate science and biodiversity loss for the last 15 years or so, I do find that my reserves of optimism about our collective future have dwindled. How could it not have? If you’re engaged in the science, things are looking bleak. The current system is accelerating us towards the total collapse of life.
But my work gives me hope, as do all the people I work with along the way. Seeing this new wave of interest and respect for the natural world, more people realising where we’re heading and wanting to take action, the rise of the rewilding movement…these all give me hope. Helping people to develop a relationship with nature, creating habitat for wildlife, improving access to healthy food & improving mental wellbeing, in tandem with protest and civil disobedience, seem like a good response to me! So, for now, that’s what I’ll continue to do!